This month, we are delighted to be reissuing three of Jeff VanderMeer's early novels, including his first novel, in stylish new covers. The books are as wonderful as ever and Jeff has told me all manner of interesting things about them below -- ranging from alternate titles and unusual editorial input to a narrowly avoided fake squid exposé. He also has some wise words on social media which I'd love to follow - but am not sure I can! So on to the interview itself. . .
1) How does it feel to see your first novel, Veniss Underground, being reissued, after you’ve had so many more collections, anthologies, novels and short stories published since? Does it seem like a long time since this was first out, or does it seem like no time’s passed at all?
In some ways, both at once. I tend to live by the pace of current projects and to have acclimated to the arc of the publishing life-cycle in which two or three years isn’t a long time at all. So, in publishing years rather than human years, it does seem rather closer than it should, I guess. I do remember Veniss, too, because initially, by mistake, a children’s book agent represented it, with no luck in placing it of course.
I’m still fond of it, since where else are you going to read a novel in which a living meerkat head glued to a plate is a sidekick? In that regard, it’s timeless. There are also a couple of stories associated with Veniss. For example, it was first acquired by an indie publisher who found religion between acquisition and publication. At one point, the point at which we parted ways, he wanted me to switch all of the characters to be analogous to characters in the Old Testament…a bit tricky, given that the novel is, if anything, influenced by Greek myth.
2) When you first started out, did you anticipate the current influence of social media in terms of engaging readers?
No, when I started out back in the mid- to late-1980s, it was all letters and offset printing and then gradually some very primitive email, which I did of course immediately use. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated it, although the press I ran at the time did immediately create one of the world’s first e-books online -- you could flip the pages and everything. Alas, we were a little ahead of our time. I would say I think this is just an extension of good old-fashioned word-of-mouth, which has been around forever and is still the most potent way for a book to become a success.
3) And how do you manage the balance between social media and writing in your own working life?
What I wrote in my book on this subject, Booklife, still applies: having a firewall between your personal and public booklife is the best solution. There can’t be bleed-over. You can’t be writing fiction and commenting on facebook that you’re writing fiction. Or, rather, I hope a lot of people do, since it’ll winnow the competition. I do find having programs like Freedom on my computer, which allow me to block the internet for a number of hours, very valuable. Also, I downgraded to a dumb phone over a year ago and that helps a lot. Otherwise, you wind up repetitively checking email anyway. The main thing is: getting on facebook or twitter to promote your book is like a hamster getting on a wheel -- unless you actually have a strategy and you set boundaries and have discipline.
4) If you could bring back one thing from the city of Ambergris to our world, what would it be and why?
Actually, I did bring one thing back from the city of Ambergris. I took the famous Ambergris freshwater squid festival and wrote a story set in the real world called “The Festival of the Freshwater Squid.” It was a kind of Twain-like loving send-up of small-town Florida festivals, of which there are dozens. I made up the supposed freshwater squid, the Mayfly Squid, supposedly an invasive species from Brazil, and a festival in Sebring during their off-season, complete with a Mayfly Squid Queen and a parade.
When it was published online, I had cephalopod experts email me to castigate me for making their job more difficult, given the complexity of categorization of real squid. The local Sebring newspaper eventually interviewed me about “the situation” since -- despite clearly marking each page as fiction -- there had been, shall we say, some confusion. The apex of this came a couple of years later when a BBC wildlife program producer emailed me to say she and her team would be in the Everglades anyway and were willing to come up to Sebring to film me walking along a lake there, talking about the Mayfly Squid . . .I was sorely tempted to do it, but ultimately my better self won out and I told her it was a fake.
5) Did you have any alternative titles for the three novels we’re reissuing and if so, why were these changed? I’m thinking of course of Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword.
Oh, yes -- for City of Saints and Madmen, I had a long list of possibles, including The Book of Ambergris, City of Sinners and Saints, City of Saints and Murderers, City of Murderers and Holy Men -- just think of every possible combination of that….Veniss Underground was once called Quin’s Shanghai Circus, stealing, too specifically, the title of an Edward Whittemore novel. Shriek: An Afterword always had that name, though.
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Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen and Shreik: An Afterword are all available now with fabulous new cover art. And you can find out more about Jeff and his books on his website here.